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Home Entertainment Blog Archive

Brought to you by your friendly, opinionated, Home Entertainment and Technology writer, Stephen Dawson

Here I report, discuss, whinge or argue on matters related to high fidelity, home entertainment equipment and the discs and signals that feed them. Since this Blog is hand-coded (I like TextPad), there are no comments facilities. But feel free to email me at scdawson [at] hifi-writer.com. I will try to respond, either personally or by posting here emails I consider of interest. I shall assume that emails sent to me here can be freely posted by me unless you state otherwise.

This archive is for an uncertain period commencing Thursday, 15 October 2009

Toshiba releases its first Blu-ray player in Australia - Monday, 7 December 2009, 11:22 am

Yes, the inventor of HD DVD has finally decided to join in with Blu-ray. Its BDX2000 is available today. Price: $329. Feature list:

  • BD-Live
  • DivX HD and AVCHD Playback
  • Toshiba REGZA-LINK® (HDMI-CEC)
  • Support for enhanced audio formats of Dolby® TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio | Essential
  • Bonus View
  • SD Card Slot (SDHC Compatible)
  • Deep Colour
Toshiba has been well known over the years for some truly classic DVD players, and to be honest its HD DVD players were pretty damned good as well. They were horribly slow, but so were all first generation Blu-ray players. That aside, they seemed to work really well.

But I'm not absolutely certain that this Blu-ray player is fully Toshiba. I haven't seen it yet, and I haven't researched it, but my guess is that it is based on a Panasonic platform. The use of an SD card slot, and support for DTS-HD MA 'Essential' rings of Panasonic.

Still, there are a lot worse platforms on which to base a Blu-ray player.

UPDATE (Tuesday, 19 January 2010, 6:53 am): I've had my hands on this player for a while now, and if it is based on a Panasonic platform -- or any other -- it is not apparent to me. I think this one may well be all Toshiba's own work.

BBC says that it's all in your head - Thursday, 3 December 2009, 3:18 pm

Over on the AVS Forum Blu-ray Audio and Video Specifications Thread, we whinge, rightly, about average video bitrates of less than 20Mbps, sometimes even less than 15Mbps, on Blu-ray.

Still we should keep things in perspective. Apparently the BBC HD Service reduced its VBR from 19Mbps, to 16Mbps and, now, to 9.7Mbps. This is MPEG4 AVC, I understand, at 1080i50, but still that's a shocker. Viewers complained. The Head of BBC HD, BBC Vision, Danielle Nagler, responded by patting everyone on the hand in a kindly manner, and saying that of course the reduction didn't damage picture quality. If you see a problem, well, it's all in your head:

We all need to accept that a great deal of our perception of HD picture quality is driven by our pre-conceptions. Some Dutch research published last month (the report I saw was from Informa, dated 28 Oct 09) highlights the extent to which views on picture quality are driven by expectation and emotion. ... I have no doubt that for those who believe the bitrate cut has killed picture quality, none of the changes to the encoders that we will make to address the problems which we know are there will make any difference, unless they go hand in hand with an announcement that we've upped the bitrate.
I would not necessarily expect that the head of BBC HD would be a technical expert. Management expertise is probably more relevant to the job. But she should not pose as one either. Just because the clueless (those who think SDTV seen on a high res panel is HDTV) can't see the difference, doesn't mean that those who do see a difference are wrong.

In fact, low bitrate 'broadcast' type transmissions (including those constrained by cable delivery) are even worse than Blu-rays with the same average. HDTV and so on has to be approximately constant in its bitrate, whereas a Blu-ray can have a wide variation in its bitrate over time. Consider, for example, a low average bitrate title such as Blood Diamond. This has to make do with just 12.72 Mbps on average. But look at the graph showing what the bitrate is from second to second over the course of the movie:

Blood Diamond video bitrate

Modern video compression is less efficient when there is a lot of movement from frame to frame. Blood Diamond has a relatively high video bitrate for significant sections -- 18 to 20Mbps, and peaking as high as 30Mbps. The constrained pipe of broadcast TV or cable does not permit those wide ranges. This movie would look significantly better on Blu-ray than on HDTV, even if the average bitrate were identical.

I am not a bitrate supremacist. I disagree with those who insist that an 18Mbps Blu-ray isn't worth having, or that 28Mbps is necessary better, visually, than 20Mbps. But you get to a low enough figure, and you get crap. My bet is that 9.7Mbps is below that point, at least on some material.

Lord of the Rings coming to Blu-ray - Tuesday, 1 December 2009, 4:47 pm

This was an announcement I received today from Roadshow Entertainment. I shall feed through more info as it becomes available, but it seems that we'll see LOTR on Blu-ray in April 2010:

Lord of the Rings announcement

I may be silly, but I suspect that there are few movies that could more make use of the higher resolution of Blu-ray than this trilogy.

Busy, busy, busy! - Tuesday, 1 December 2009, 4:41 pm

As the title implies, I've been very busy the last couple of weeks. Still am. But here's one thing that I reckon is interesting: an Audio Engineering Society Convention Paper from 2004, entitled 'DVD-Audio versus SACD: Perceptual Discrimination of Digital Audio Coding Formats - Listening Comparison Test between DSD and High Resolution PCM (24-bit / 176.4 kHz)'

It's well worth a read, but to cut to the conclusion:

These listening tests indicate that as a rule, no significant differences could be heard between DSD and high-resolution PCM (24-bit / 176.4 kHz) even with the best equipment, under optimal listening conditions, and with test subjects who had varied listening experience and various ways of focusing on what they hear. Consequently it could be proposed that neither of these systems has a scientific basis for claiming audible superiority over the other.


Though less readily formulated with mathematical equations, the high level of frustration felt by many subjects during their tests left quite a strong impression. These people, for the most part, were well accustomed to critical listening on a professional level, but they found that they could not even begin to recognize any sonic differences.

Heat discs won by clever readers - Friday, 13 November 2009, 10:59 am

I have posted three copies of Heat on Blu-ray to three readers who undertook my Blu-ray picture quality survey. They were:

  • Shane from the Gold Coast,
  • Des from Queensland, and
  • Simon Hewlett from Calwell, ACT, not far from where I am.
Congratulations gentlemen!

I should note that all three got the wrong answers, but did it in a good way. One of them got nine out of ten wrong, while the other two got all ten wrong.

Let's go back and see what this tells us. The challenge was to compare two versions of the same frame, for ten different frames, and then work out whether they belonged to the original theatrical version of Natural Born Killer on Blu-ray, which had a fairly high 27.75Mbps average bitrate, or to the Director's Cut version, which had a significantly lower 20.02Mbps.

What does that tell us? Well, there were basically two components to the challenge. The first was identify whether there were indeed quality differences between the two frames in each case, and then decide whether the superior version of each frame belonged to one or the other version of the movie.

Four people undertook the challenge and emailed me with a response. Three of the four correctly grouped together all ten of the frames from each version of the movie, and the fourth correctly grouped all but one.

Clearly, these four people proved themselves very competent at judging picture quality because of their high degree of accuracy.

Things went awry in the next stage: working out whether the better quality frames were from the high bitrate theatrical cut, or the lower bitrate Director's cut. The three above assumed that the high quality went with the high bitrate. But the truth is, it was exactly the reverse in this example. The Director's Cut has much more natural colour, and a greater level of detail that ranges from moderate to large.

Did the lower video bitrate damage picture quality? Perhaps. But to the extent that it did, its effects were completely swamped by the quality of the print used.

Incidentally, one person not only grouped the two lots of ten correctly, but allocated them to the correct versions of the movie. He wasn't eligible to win the disc because he lives in America. He tells me that it was the 'overly saturated colors of the theatrical' version that gave the game away, since he'd read of that in US reviews.

So, perhaps it is fitting to give the final word to that US participant, author of BDInfo and webmaster of the Cinema Squid Blu-ray Movie Database:

A very concrete lesson that bitrate is not everything!
Correction on Yamaha RX-V465 review - Monday, 9 November 2009, 10:08 am

I reviewed a bunch of reasonably low cost home theatre receivers a little while back, and this was published in Sound and Image magazine. Despite them all costing well under a thousand dollars, the feature sets and performance of all of them were pretty startling.

But I did manage to get one thing wrong. I indicated that the Yamaha RX-V465 receiver didn't have assignable inputs. Wrong, it does.

Pride and Prejudice - Monday, 2 November 2009, 10:32 pm

Some months ago Scott Fitzgerald, the Gadget Guy's Web Master, mentioned to me a 'jarring "dual quality" of image' on this wonderful two disc Blu-ray release of the 1995 TV mini-series version of Pride and Prejudice.

It's taken me awhile to get around to watching this wonderful version. It has been many years (I last saw it on VHS). The video quality was a little variable, but not grossly so for the most part. There was some fine detail instability on exterior building shots, and a very occasional soft focus, but none that several strained my levels of tolerance.

Until the very end of the final episode. At 43:33 a tracking shot commences that lasts until a fade cut at 45:10, and this rather long shot is so noticably inferior to all that has been before (and all that comes after) as to be quite distracting. It's almost as though the producers simply forgot to restore this section of the footage.

So what we have is Miss Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy walking along a country lane, so:

Pride and Prejudice - Shot 1

It cuts to a couple of closeups of the principals in turn, so:

Pride and Prejudice - Shot 2

And then, at 43:33, goes back to the tracking shot, although from a different angle, and suddenly very soft in focus and low in contrast, so:

Pride and Prejudice - Shot 3

To really see the difference in quality in this last shot, let's put an unscaled detail from the first shot above side by side (to the left) with one from the last shot:

Pride and Prejudice - Shot 4

Let's do it again:

Pride and Prejudice - Shot 5

Believe me, on the big screen Scott's word -- 'jarring' -- is very appropriate.

But don't let that put you off. This is a glorious show, and the picture is far better (for the most part) than it has any right to be for a 1990s made for TV show.

An American Werewolf on Blu-ray - Sunday, 1 November 2009, 5:38 pm

Here's another Blu-ray vs DVD comparison: An American Werewolf in London. Oddly, reviews seem to overlook the marked graininess of the Blu-ray, but it is nonetheless a huge improvement over the DVD. Here's a sample:

Black Hawk Down comparison
More Know It All - Saturday, 31 October 2009, 6:57 pm

I have uploaded my three latest 'Know It All' columns from Geare magazine. Feel free to check them out if you want to see an overview of hybrid cars, how video compression works, or why 576i and 1080i are sometimes referred to as 625i and 1125i.

Blu-ray reviews and DVD comparisons! - Saturday, 31 October 2009, 1:08 pm

In the last day or so I've uploaded two new Blu-ray vs DVD comparisons -- Black Hawk Down and A History of Violence -- along with my Sound and Image reviews of Sin City (which already had a comparison up), Watchmen and The Da Vinci Code.

Here's one of the comparison shots from Black Hawk Down:

Black Hawk Down comparison
Win Heat on Blu-ray! - Friday, 30 October 2009, 4:01 pm

Heat Blu-ray coverCourtesy of Warner Bros, from 30 October 2009 I have three copies on Blu-ray of the excellent movie Heat (1995) to give away. This is a must-have, not only for the excellence of the movie, but the superb street gun battle and airport scenes, presented in lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1.

I'm doing the giveaway in conjunction with a survey in which you can participate. The idea is that you download some screen captures of the same frames from the same movie, but taken from different Blu-ray versions, and see if you can work out which is which. Australian residents will be eligible for the Heat prize in the first one, which is here. Future surveys will be accessible here. I'm hoping to have more prizes available for them.

The Green Mile and The Wizard of Oz coming - Friday, 30 October 2009, 1:20 pm

Two very different fantasies will be appearing on Blu-ray in Australia on 2 December. The Green Mile was director Frank Darabont's third Stephen King adaptation and if not quite up the level of The Shawshank Redemption (already out on Blu-ray), that's only because Shawshank was do damned superb. After all, it is usually jostling with The Godfather and The Godfather Part 2 for the number one position on the IMDB Top 250 list (it is, as I write, Number 1). (Darabont followed up most recently with his fourth King adaptation, a horror movie featuring what must be a unique basis for the horror: The Mist.)

As for Gone with the Wind, little needs to be said. There's a DVD version of this coming out at the same time, with the movie split across two discs (necessary to allow decent video quality given the near to four hour length of the movie). I'm seeking to find out about the Blu-ray details now.

January 2010 - Big Month for Disney on Blu-ray - Wednesday, 28 October 2009, 10:02 am

'Up' Blu-ray coverI've just been trawling through the Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment publicity website and noticed that come January the following Blu-ray discs will be released: G-Force (2009 - 4.7/10 on IMDB), Up (2009 - 8.6/10) and Monsters, Inc. (2009 - 8.0/10).

The latter two will be especially welcome on Blu-ray, where they both belong.

HiFi Writer now searchable - Tuesday, 27 October 2009, 11:48 am

Of course, it always was. Just use the site:hifi-writer.com modifier in a Google search. But I've added a search box to the left of the main page of the Blog, and the front page, and I may add it elsewhere if I think of useful locations.

Accompaniments to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs - Friday, 23 October 2009, 11:23 am

Cover of Snow White Blu-rayAs is Disney's way, the recent Blu-ray release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (provided to me by the company) is lavish. Three discs: movie on the first with some extras, including a Walt Disney commentary pieced together from various relevant audio recordings, DVD version on the third, and special extras on the second.

The second disc is worth exploring primarily because of the classic cartoons. Have you ever seen the full eight minutes of 'Steamboat Willie'? This 1928 cartoon was the second Mickey Mouse one, and the first sound synched one. The minute or so on the bridge of the boat has been broadcast innumerable times, but all the rest?

As it happens, this cartoon remains copyright protected until 2018, thanks to a twenty year extension of copyright generally, sought by Disney back in 1998. Of course, it was itself, arguably, a breach of copyright. I imagine we'll see Disney back before the US Congress in the next few years, arguing once again for an extension of copyright law so as to keep Mickey under control for a while longer.

Also present, Disney's first 'Silly Symphony', The Skeleton Dance an excellent example of making the music match the on-screen action, released very early in the sound era (1929). Oddly, this cartoon was banned in both the UK and Sweden! The UK disliked it so much, that country also banned the 1937 colour remake, 'Skeleton Frolics'.

Also provided is 'Flowers and Trees' (1932), Disney's first colour cartoon, and the first animated film to win an Academy Award ('Best Short Subject, Cartoons', 1932).

Others included are: 'Babes in the Woods' (1932), 'Playful Pluto' (1934), 'The Goddess of Spring' (1934), 'Music Land' (1935) and 'The Old Mill' (1938, also Academy Award Winner, first use of multi-plane camera, explained in the introduction to the cartoon).

All are presented in full 1080p24 MPEG4 AVC video.

UPDATE (Friday, 23 October 2009, 6:06 pm): It has been drawn to my attention that it is by no means obvious where these cartoons are. So let me explain how to get there.

From the main menu, which should eventually appear after inserting the disc, choose 'Bonus Features', then 'Backstage Disney: Diamond Edition', then 'Hyperion Studios'. You will have to wait a while at this point because a stack of BD-Java code has to be loaded in.

This section of the disc is easily the most BD-Java controlled content I've seen. Rather than using a normal menu system, this section seizes control of your player, showing all video without apparently using the usual routines from the player. For example, not only will your player not tell you such things as the playing time for any video clips playing in this section, it won't even show you a time display! All you'll see on your player is '00:00' or '--.--'.

I shall pause for a bit longer in my explication of how to access the cartoons to note that the Blu-ray player I am using has jammed. This is the second player to jam on this section. The other two I was using seemingly worked fine! The first one jammed up before loading the BD-Java, while the other -- a different brand -- managed that, then ran the introductory video of about 2 minutes and 26 seconds, and then jammed up. Ah, another complexity due to BD-Java! I shall see if there are upgrades available for their firmware later.

So I've just plugged in a PS3 to see how that goes.

It worked perfectly. After that introductory video clip you will see an apricot coloured box near the bottom of the screen that says 'Go To STORY ROOM'. This is the basic navigation feature. You can left and right arrow this to select various clips, or press 'Enter' to go to the first room.

This is a very slow way of getting around. Better way: press down arrow and select 'Index'. This gives you a list of entries for all the various rooms. Down arrow to the room, left arrow to its contents, down arrow to the cartoon, and press Enter.

Here are the locations of the cartoons:

  • 'Steamboat Willie': Sound Stage
  • 'The Skeleton Dance': Music Room
  • 'Flowers and Trees': Ink and Paint
  • 'Babes in the Woods': Story Room
  • 'Playful Pluto': Animation Department
  • 'The Goddess of Spring': Animation Department
  • 'Music Land': Art Department
  • 'The Old Mill': Camera Department
6.09GB - Saturday, 17 October 2009, 6:49 pm

I've been belatedly scanning some of my older Blu-ray discs and this morning I did GoodFellas. This Australian version (released by Warner Bros here) turned out to have exactly the same specifications as the US version shown here, including the disc size.

BDInfo 0.5.3 disclosed the usual information, and I was interested to note the existence of a 118 minute SD extra on the disc. This was playlist 00011.mpls, which uses file 00013.m2ts, and no other file. Here's the playlist report for that one:


Name:                   00011.MPLS
Length:                 1:58:27 (h:m:s)
Size:                   6,535,593,984 bytes
Total Bitrate:          7.36 Mbps


Codec                   Bitrate             Description
-----                   -------             -----------
MPEG-2 Video            6974 kbps           480i / 29.970 fps / 4:3


Name            Time In         Length          Size            Total Bitrate
----            -------         ------          ----            -------------
00013.M2TS      0:00:00.000     1:58:27.900     6,535,593,984   7,356
So what could this be? None of the extras on the disc were this length. Each nicely related to other files and playlists on the disc.

When I finished entering the disc details into my database, I dragged 00013.m2ts into a media player, and it turned out to be the video -- and only the video, there being no sound at all -- of the 29:36 featurette called 'Getting Made'. It even had the same average video bitrate.

But clearly that featurette isn't long enough. So I jumped around within 00013.m2ts and soon discovered that it consisted of the video of this featurette repeated four times end to end.

This item uses 6.09GB of disc space. It does nothing. Without it, the disc could have comfortably been single layered.

BD-Live on Star Trek - Friday, 16 October 2009, 6:50 pm

The Star Trek Blu-ray comes with an excellent package of extras:

  • Commentary;
  • Starfleet Vessel Simulator (graphical info feature);
  • 9 Deleted scenes with Optional Commentary (1080p24, MPEG4 AVC, 2 x DD2.0 @ 224kbps - 14 mins);
  • 30 Featurettes (1080p24, MPEG4 AVC, DD5.1 @ 640kbps - 194 mins);
  • Gag Reel (1080p24, MPEG4 AVC, DD5.1 @ 640kbps - 6 mins);
  • 4 Trailers (1080p24, MPEG4 AVC, DD5.1 @ 640kbps - 7 mins);
  • Digital Copy
Plus BD-Live. Since the disc hasn't been released yet, there isn't much available at this point. So I thought I might as well document it to see how things change over time.

Here's the BD-Live screen:

Star Trek BD-Live feature

Only the one item is available: an RSS news feed from NASA. Here's the list as of today:

Star Trek BD-Live NASA RSS feed

It just goes to show the capabilities of Blu-ray. I expect that, as with Transformers, Paramount will be adding more BD-Live stuff prior to and after launch.

Star Trek Blu-ray coverStar Trek - Friday, 16 October 2009, 10:27 am

Consider marking 29 October down in your diary. That's the date that the new Star Trek movie is appearing on Blu-ray (and on DVD, but isn't it better to watch it properly?)

The Blu-ray version is a special three disc package. One disc is essentially for the movie alone. The file on the disc which constitutes the movie is 39.31GB in size, and is 98.4% of the total content of the disc.

Don't worry, the extras (most in HD) occupy the second disc, while the third disc is a DVD containing a Windows/Mac/iPod/XBox compatible 'Digital Copy'.

I saw this movie on an airplane a couple of months ago, so I haven't experienced it properly. I expect to do that tonight. The story survived even the airplane experience and the movie presently resides at number 130 on the IMDB Top 250 list.

As for the Blu-ray rendition, I have just scanned it using BDInfo 0.5.3 and it tells me that the sound scores 24 bit Dolby TrueHD lossless treatment, with an average bitrate of a quite impressive 3603kbps. The average bitrate for the MPEG4 AVC video is 32.699Mbps, so the rendition of the picture should be faithful to the movie. This is the video bitrate graph, produced by BDInfo:

Star Trek video bitrate
New old movies from Universal! - Thursday, 15 October 2009, 10:17 am

The postman knocked at the door this morning and unexpectedly delivered three brilliant Blu-ray discs from Universal. Labelled the 'StudioCanal Collection', these come in cardboard book-style cases, with an 18 page booklet on the movie included in a pocket.

I'm not keen on the cases: especially the way they do not cleanly let go of the disc, making it necessary to flex them.

But the movies themselves: one goody and two greats:

I just love those classics!

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